Articles by

<Adam Bonislawski>

02/01/12 4:00am

Proud Beggars and The Colors of Infamy

By Albert Cossery
Trans. Thomas Cushing and Alyson Waters

(NYRB, New Directions)

A reader can’t help but wonder how Albert Cossery might have greeted the Arab Spring. With glee, most likely. Followed immediately by despair. Which probably in its turn would have led right back again to glee.

In eight novels written over 60 years, the Cairo-born Cossery (1913-2008), who lived the bulk of his life in Paris and wrote in French, but set his fiction in the Middle East, evinced no shortage of contempt for the Egyptian establishment. Corrupt officials, vicious police, slimy businessmen—all make regular appearances in his work. More than anything, though, he was a connoisseur of human folly—a phenomenon he seemed to define so broadly as to include pretty much anything a person might ever do.

That attitude—which would probably seem nastier were Cossery not so consistently funny about it—is on full, flourishing display in two new editions of his work: Thomas Cushing’s newly reissued 1981 translation of his 1955 book Proud Beggars, and Alyson Waters’s new translation of his final effort, 1999’s The Colors of Infamy.

Both are crime stories, at least superficially—the former kicking off with a murder and the latter with a theft. Beggars concerns an ex-professor turned hash addict named Gohar who strangles a prostitute while looking for drug money in a withdrawal-induced haze. Infamy follows the exploits of young Cairo pickpocket Ossama and his mentor Nimr as they deal with a letter they’ve unwittingly stolen that’s linked to a government scandal.

But at heart, the books are comedies of manners, with Cossery taking as his (comically ambitious) target humanity writ large. He’s a keen observer of codes, both society’s and, perhaps more to the point, those that people assign themselves; and about these codes he is unrelentingly critical, mocking—sometimes gently, sometimes viciously—the pettiness and vanities that underpin them. At its best his writing embodies these delusions, meandering, circuitous passages turning in on themselves like his characters’ minds, as if searching for somewhere to hide:

Ever since Ossama had begun to frequent the posh districts in order to track down his victims among the capital’s grand thieves, the young man had distanced himself from Nimr’s sphere of activity and Nimr regretted, not without some rancor, the loss of such a promising pupil. Ossama’s intelligence in the trade that Nimr had taught him seemed to have extended well beyond his own instruction and this was unforgivable to a master who believed himself unsurpassable in his field.

Of course, unrelieved cynicism, like any single note, can grow monotonous after a while, and at times Cossery shades into a bland nihilism of sorts. What saves him is his great enthusiasm for his characters’ flaws, the obvious joy he takes in chronicling their stumbles across the page. He denies them dignity, but he gives them love. Their existence may be ugly and pointless, but it can be a pleasure all the same. “So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it,” Cossery once said. Or, as Beggars’ Gohar notes admiringly of his friend the poet-cum-drug dealer Yeghen, “Just to be alive was enough to make him happy.”

06/22/11 4:00am

The Astral

Kate Christensen


Say this for Kate Christensen’s new novel The Astral: if nothing else, it’s a good antidote to Brooklyn nostalgia. No doubt there’s a certain allure to the borough’s hardscrabble, pre-hoodie days, but if living then would have meant hanging out with the likes of Harry Quirk and his friends, well, frankly, I’d just as soon not.

Harry is the book’s hero, or perhaps anti-hero, depending on your disposition toward aging bohemians with borderline drinking problems. A once modestly successful poet since fallen into obscurity, he is, as the story begins, living in a Greenpoint flophouse, having been tossed by his wife Luz from their apartment in the neighborhood’s Astral building after she found poems that he’d written addressed to other women, mistaking them for evidence of an affair. Given that the women in the poems are all fictional, this doesn’t seem entirely reasonable, but then Luz, as Harry frequently reminds us, isn’t really the reasonable sort.

Rather, she’s a hot-blooded Latina with a mean Catholic streak who can a hold a grudge like nobody’s business. In other words, like most all of the book’s characters, she’s something of a cliché. Along with Luz we get, for instance: drunken, violent Poles; shady, insular Hasids; a crusty salt-of-the-earth bartender; an indie sell-out turned foodie douchebag. The Astral is ostensibly the story of Harry getting his groove back—coming to terms with his wife, their marriage, himself and certain increasingly hard-to-maintain illusions—but Christensen actually seems most interested in capturing current hipster Brooklyn in all its absurd, kinetic glory. It’s a worthy task; it’s an interesting place. Unfortunately, what she comes up with is less a great New York novel than a cardboard menagerie of familiar borough types.

It doesn’t help that Harry is kind of a dope. The narrative, as it’s structured, flows through him, the story arriving filtered through his memories and prejudices and misconceptions. Occasionally (and particularly in one scene where he confronts Luz’s therapist), this makes for an interesting exploration of the ways in which couples misunderstand and deceive each other over the course of a relationship. Despite his training as a poet, though, Harry isn’t exactly a font of emotional insights, and more often than not we’re treated instead to drab, 
metaphor-laden monologues like this:

“When I really fucked up, after my peccadillo with Samantha, Luz knocked me off my pedestal and turned the klieg lights of her ice-cold gaze onto every bit of evidence, any minuscule contradiction or microscopic disparity she could uncover, building her case to prove that I was a lying, cheating worm…Luz had split me open with her fascistic scimitar, then she’d flayed me with the wet noodles of my own guilt.”

To be fair, it isn’t all this bad (although, on the other hand, much of it is). Christensen has a nice understanding of the pathologies of the male mind, and several episodes involving Harry’s son and a Long Island cult are an enjoyable break from the otherwise steady parade of stock Brooklyn characters. Nonetheless, 300 pages of Harry is plenty. That Luz lasted 30 years with the guy is a minor miracle.

04/27/11 4:00am

There Is No Year

Blake Butler

Harper Perennial

Let’s not kid ourselves. I don’t understand half of what Blake Butler is getting at, and neither do you.

This is by design. Or, perhaps more to the point, necessity. Butler’s new novel, There Is No Year, is little more than an account of a suburban family’s daily goings-on, but told through a prism so disorienting and estranging as to make what would be the unremarkable details of their lives feel almost terrifyingly weird.

Butler is the founder and editor of the literary blog HTMLGiant, and the book reflects that site’s experimental bent. It’s characterized by incomprehension, the family wandering through their home like primitives caught in a world outside their understanding. Reading it is like stumbling across a dollhouse tableau built by a toymaker with a serious taste for psychedelics.

The story works by erasing boundaries, blurring the lines between characters and settings, stretching inches into miles, minutes into years. The family’s universe is impossibly elastic, their house ever expanding and contracting, they themselves entering and exiting bodies and copies of bodies, diffusing through the shells, crusts, carapaces that contain them, bleeding out into the world.

And then there is the world bleeding in. “For years the air above the earth had begun sagging, suffused by a nameless, ageless eye of light,” begins the novel. “Each day the light grew gently thicker, purer. Each day still felt the same. Its presence rode in ridges on the faces of the hours and in silent hair all down all arms.” Everywhere the family is confronted by this sort of flattening, anonymizing onslaught. Ants infest their house, eating holes in the floorboards, carving patterns in the painted walls. Words infect the son’s body, turning him blue and swollen. These are people being erased by information, their squawks and bleats subsumed in a ceaseless flood of language and symbols.

If this sounds to you like some grand metaphor for the internet age, well, you might be right. The book’s blurring of forms is so pervasive and wide-ranging, though, that it seems less an account of a world disordered by any particular agent and more a basic statement about the necessity and frailty of the tricks—naming, dividing, categorizing—our minds use to let us live.

There Is No Year isn’t a work that’s especially long on plot. A relationship of sorts develops between the son and a girl at his school. The father’s ever-expanding commute morphs into something of an epic quest. At root, though, the book is less a narrative to be puzzled out than an object to be taken in—a sort of Blue Rider painting masquerading as a novel.

Individual mileage with this will vary, of course. Aggressive opacity as a literary strategy has never been much of a crowd pleaser, and there are occasionally points at which you wonder if Butler has any more of an idea than his characters about what exactly is going on. Lurking amid the obscurity, though, is a strange, intense vision of the world. The great pleasures of the novel are the moments —and there are many—when this vision rises unsuspected from the page and grips you by the throat.

03/16/11 5:00am

Late this January some 800 federal agents arrested 127 suspected members of the Italian Mafia in one of the largest-ever operations targeting the organization.

Attorney General Eric Holder made a trip to Brooklyn to announce the arrests, and the FBI moved processing from its lower Manhattan headquarters to a gym in Fort Hamilton to accommodate the overflow of defendants.

It was perhaps an appropriate shift in venue given the extent to which the Italian mob has dominated the borough’s underworld over the years—infiltrating unions, shaking down dockworkers, running gambling rackets, selling drugs—but while indictments from the investigation suggest the Mafia is still plenty active in the area, it’s also clear that compared to its mid-century glory days, the current incarnation of La Cosa Nostra is looking a lot less like Michael and a lot more like Fredo.

“The Mafia just doesn’t have a stronghold on crime and the streets like they used to,” says Lou Savelli, former commander of the NYPD Detective Bureau’s Gang Division Major Case Squad. “It’s really been diminished. There have been some very significant investigations [against them] by the FBI and the NYPD and the Department of Justice.”

Italian crime families continue to control stretches of the city’s waterfront and still operate from traditional strongholds like Bensonhurst and Ozone Park, but generally speaking, their power has been on the downslide now for close to half a century. Following on a 2008 bust that rolled up 61 members of the Gambino family, this year’s sweep is just the latest lurching step in the long, slow decline of the mob.

Which raises the question: Who, exactly, is running Brooklyn today?

The answer, unsurprisingly, depends on where you’re asking. In spots like Coney Island and Brighton Beach, for instance, the Russian and Ukrainian mobsters who pushed out the Italians several decades ago continue to dominate. In northern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bushwick and Brownsville, on the other hand, Bloods typically control the turf. Crips predominate in South Brooklyn areas like East Flatbush and Marine Park, while the Latin Kings primarily operate in parts of Bay Ridge, Sunset Park and Park Slope. Of late, the most significant change to Brooklyn’s criminal landscape has come from “the proliferation of Mexican gangs,” Savelli says, noting that as immigration from Mexico to New York has increased in recent decades, Mexican gangs like “18th Street” have emerged in areas like Sunset Park between 30th and 50th streets as well as parts of Coney Island and Brighton Beach.

More established, but growing at a similarly rapid clip, is the Dominican gang Trinitarios, which formed in Sing-Sing in the late 80s and counts Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Houses as one of its main power bases. From there the gang has spread to other New York neighborhoods like Washington Heights, as well as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware.

“They’re not new,” says Savelli, “but they’ve become very powerful on the streets. They’re pretty big on the radar right now.”

Being a big deal in Brooklyn, though, isn’t what it used to be. In fact, notes Ric Curtis, professor and chair of the Anthropology Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, when it comes to gang activity, the borough—and New York City in general—is actually something of a backwater. It’s surprising given its carefully cultivated image as a rough-and-tumble town, but, Curtis says, the city “just doesn’t have much of a [street] gang problem.”

While places like Los Angeles and Chicago have struggled for years with well-organized, multi-generational groups of Bloods and Crips and Latin Kings, street gangs in New York and Brooklyn have typically been loosely-run, rag-tag affairs. Local outfits may call themselves Bloods or Crips, but they generally have little to no contact with those gangs’ national organizations, Curtis notes.

03/16/11 4:00am

The Tiger’s Wife
by Téa Obreht

Random House

About a third of the way into The Tiger’s Wife, the first book from Téa Obreht, a Nazi bomb blows a hole in the wall of the Belgrade Zoo, freeing the tiger that gives the novel its name.

The tiger heads north, up the Danube, through fields and swamps filled with war dead and into the mountains above the town of Galina where it settles, preying on livestock and local game and the occasional unlucky hunter. One night, lured by the smell of food, it creeps down to the village into a butcher’s smokehouse where it comes upon the butcher’s wife in the back of the building waiting with a piece of meat in her hand. Finding his wife feeding the tiger, the butcher ties her up inside the smokehouse and leaves her there to be eaten. Several days later, however, he’s the one who’s gone missing, and two weeks after that his now-widow appears in town pregnant with what’s rumored to be the tiger’s child.

What exactly happened within this curious triangle is the mystery that drives the novel; the action, such as it is, revolves around the narrator Natalia’s efforts to make sense of the tale. The book is a story about stories—their uses and misuses; what they explain and what they obscure. Chock-full of fantastic narratives, it reads, by and large, like magical realism. There’s a recurring skepticism about the stories being told, though, that gives it an almost metafictional air. A doctor, Natalia boasts a strong rationalist streak, 
however difficult it may be to make sense of the last century or so of Balkan history.

An alum of the New Yorker‘s 20-under-40 fiction list, Obreht can certainly write, and the novel is filled with strange, lovely images. An elephant drags “its curled trunk like a fist along the ground.”The tiger spends his days in captivity “feeding on fat white columns of spine.”His slow trek northward out of the city toward Galina draws him through a blasted landscape of ruins and corpses, the surroundings wonderfully prefiguring and then paralleling his own growing savagery. An episode describing a visit by Natalia’s grandfather to the besieged city of Sarobor shows off a terrific sense of structure and pacing.

But there’s also a surprising amount of indiffrent prose mixed in—long, drab stretches that seem mainly designed just to move the book along. The novel’s present-day portions, in particular, feel half-heartedly done—more like scaffolding thrown up to bridge bits of plot than fully realized pieces of writing. It also suffers somewhat from its perhaps too many storylines. Instead of keying off one another to multiply the narrative’s momentum, they’re often on each other’s toes, making the novel seem simultaneously unfocused and overstuffed.

None of which is to say it’s not a fine book—especially for a first effort. It’s richly imagined and in many parts beautifully written. There’s just probably a slightly slimmer, slightly better version hiding within.

12/15/10 1:00am

It turns out that following high school football is an excellent way to see New York. This is mainly a function of logistics. A typical high school field—taking into account room for end zones and sidelines and bleachers—covers somewhere around 80,000 square feet. Needless to say, in Manhattan and your closer-in outer-borough neighborhoods, that kind of space is hard to come by. Which means that most any game you go to will involve a trip to one of the city’s less touristed areas.

Local teams, then, are a well-traveled bunch. Some, however, do still more traveling than others. For instance, Williamsburg’s Automotive High School. In addition to away games at John Adams High School in Ozone Park, Jamaica High School in Jamaica, Samuel J Tilden High School in East Flatbush, Christopher Columbus High School in Pelham, and South Shore High School in Canarsie, Automotive played four of its five home games this season at the Grand Street Campus field in East Williamsburg—a five-minute walk and three subway stops from the school. Even when technically hosting, the team still had to go on the road.

What makes this situation slightly maddening, as opposed to merely inconvenient, is the fact that directly opposite the high school sits McCarren Park—site of a recently resurfaced, well maintained, regulation-size football field; an obvious spot, it would seem, for Automotive’s home stadium. The facility, however, lacks a fence, which the Public School Athletic League—administrator of the city’s high school sports programs—requires for crowd control purposes. And so, despite having a field right across the street, the team has roamed nomad-like since its inaugural season four years ago.

There have been two exceptions. Automotive used McCarren in 2006 for its first-ever home game—a mildly disastrous production (“We came out and no one had lined the field. I’d never coached before. I didn’t know the home team was supposed to line the field,” recalls coach Haseeb Khawaja) that likely informed the PSAL’s subsequent lack of enthusiasm for the venue. It also used the park this season, for its September 25th contest against Bayside High.

That most recent game was the culmination of several years of work by Khawaja and his players to convince the powers-that-be that, fence or no, McCarren could work as their home. As this season approached, their efforts became something of a local cause celebre, with outlets like The Brooklyn Paper chronicling the team’s campaign and Borough President Marty Markowitz offering his endorsement. In late August the PSAL reversed its policy, announcing that Automotive would be allowed two games at McCarren—the Bayside match-up and a November 7th game that was ultimately moved back to Grand Street due to traffic complications related to the New York City marathon.

The September 25th game drew upwards of 300 spectators—around three times the fans a typical Automotive home date at Grand Street might bring. Parents and students and teachers crowded the field. Locals passing by drifted in to watch the teams play. “It was amazing. The whole track was lined with people,” recalls Akeem Austin, one of the team’s wide receivers. “Our fans, family, there were a ton of people behind us right here,” says quarterback Stephane Dejean. “There were a whole lot of people watching that game.”

In its first season as a varsity team, Automotive lost every contest, finishing 0-10. The following year it improved its record slightly, going 2-8. The year after that it went 6-3. In 2009, the squad went 11-1, its lone defeat coming in the league championship game.

This season the school jumped from the city’s Cup Division to the more competitive Bowl Division. (High school football in New York works a bit like Premier League soccer with each school playing in one of three divisions—Cup, Bowl, or Championship.) After the Bayside game its record stood at 2-1. Three weeks later, going into a match-up against the Bronx’s Christopher Columbus High, the team was a respectable 3-2 and solidly in the mix of schools chasing a playoff spot.

05/12/10 2:10am

White Masks
By Elias Khoury

White Masks, the latest book from Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, kicks off in something of a noirish mode. Reading the newspaper one morning, the book’s narrator learns of the murder of a neighborhood man, Khalil Ahmad Jaber, whose mutilated body was found stripped to the waist and dumped in a Beirut street. The narrator (who remains nameless) finds himself unaccountably curious about this killing and embarks on his own investigation.

It’s an opening that seems to set things up for a detective story, but almost immediately, the narrator loses the thread. Roving through the war-ravaged city, he inspects medical reports, tracks down eyewitnesses, interviews doctors, housekeepers, soldiers, widows—anyone who might have crossed Jaber’s path. The book is a frame tale, the narrator’s search for clues the setting for the many narratives—invariably tragic—he comes across on his way.

But what to do with all of these narratives? This becomes the central dilemma of the novel—one that the narrator ultimately answers with what essentially amounts to a helpless shrug. “This is no tale,”he cautions at the book’s beginning, and he’s no sort of gumshoe. Each lead draws him deeper into wartime Beirut—a maze of absurd violence, unlucky turns, chance brutality—but none bring him any closer to solving the crime he set out investigating.

Of course, there isn’t a solution. How do you draw out of a civil war something so tidy as a murder mystery? Our narrator isn’t just the book’s detective, he’s its author as well, and too honest, it turns out, to piece together a convincing story. There are stories, lovely, quietly told stories of fallen sons, desperate widows, faithless husbands, crooked dentists, disillusioned militants… But they add up to nothing; they reveal only themselves. They ensnare and entangle and disorient, and then once they’re done, spin you around several times and send you back into the street more bewildered than you were before. Which is precisely the point.

03/17/10 3:15am

Ergo and Soul of Wood
By Jakov Lind
Translated by Ralph Manheim

Open Letter, New York Review Books

Jakov Lind’s biography is the sort that demands to be led with. A Viennese Jew, Lind left Austria in the wake of the Anschluss, traveling to Holland to escape the Nazis. Five years later, when the occupying Germans began their first mass round-ups of Dutch Jews, Lind went underground, obtaining false papers in the name of Jan Gerrit Overbeek and taking a job as a barge worker ferrying goods up and down the Rhine. Shortly thereafter, with Allied bomb attacks making work on the river increasingly dangerous, Lind, in an irony that was certainly dark enough, if perhaps too straightforward, to sit comfortably at home in one of his stories, managed to get a job as a courier for the German Air Ministry. At the war’s end he assumed yet another identity—this time of a Haifa-born Jew named Jakov Chaklan. Traveling under this persona, he made his way from Marseille to Palestine, where he lived for a time on a kibbutz before returning to Europe, eventually settling in London in 1954.

Dropped atop the hypocenter of the 20th century, Lind managed miraculously to extricate himself from the disasters ordained for him. The characters who populate his fiction, two volumes of which—the story collection Soul of Wood and the novel Ergo—have recently been reissued in English translations by Ralph Manheim, are typically less successful.

Notably, they’re also less innocent. The title story from Soul of Wood concerns the efforts of a crippled WWI veteran named Wohlbrecht to smuggle a paralyzed Jewish boy to a mountain hideaway after his parents are sent to a concentration camp. After essentially leaving the boy in the woods to die, Wohlbrecht ends up at an insane asylum, where he spends his days helping a pair of doctors administer lethal injections. With the war winding down and Germany losing, the three of them realize they’ll likely be held accountable for their crimes, and so they race back to the woods where Wohlbrecht left the boy, planning to claim him as an exculpatory example of their good works. What begins seemingly as a tale of Schindleresque redemption ends with a cast wholly unaware they’d any need to be redeemed in the first place.

Soul of Wood‘s characters are in general remarkable for their indifference to the blood on their hands (or, in the cases of the less culpable, the blood running through the streets around them). In “The Pious Brother” a German princess whose six sons died fighting at the Russian front smugly lights candles at mass for their S.S. comrade who’s committed suicide. In “The Judgment” an unrepentant serial killer tries to lure his father to his prison cell in order to make him his final victim. In “Hurrah for Freedom” a husband and wife feast obliviously on their own children while a visiting medical student does his best to join them. The stories’ universe is one devoid not just of righteous characters, but of the idea of righteousness itself.

Ergo seems an almost sunny book by comparison. The tale of an absurd, decades-long epistolary battle between two men, Wacholder and Wurz, the novel follows Wacholder and his tenant Leo as they attempt, over the objections of Wacholder’s adopted son Aslan, to read Wurz out of existence. It’s a fanciful, profane, discursive work, what little plot it possesses tripping disjointedly along atop the characters’ ranting and obsessing. Soul of Wood, with its sinister dreamworlds and disoriented paranoiacs, inevitably draws comparisons to Kafka. Ergo, on the other hand, approaches more the nimble surrealism of a Flann O’Brien. Blackly comic and deeply pessimistic, the book is by no means a light read, but it manages somehow still to feel light on its feet. Ultimately, this is Lind’s great genius. He writes like a man juggling cannonballs, tossing the weightiest of fates about with a casualness that makes them seem more terrible still.

01/20/10 3:30am

The most interesting thing about New York’s Russian barbershops is how exactly alike they are. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of these places across the city, and all of them very much the same, as if they’d been molded into uniformity by some curious evolutionary process.

This would be less odd if the underlying logic behind their design made more obvious sense. For instance, why should a barbershop also offer watch repair? Why should it keep on hand several racks of garish leather belts for sale? Why should it always maintain a stack of off-brand Italian loafers in the corner next to the cash register? Who do they think, really, is going to buy that floor-to-ceiling mirror, even if it is 50 percent off?

In any case, these are the facts of the matter: Your haircut will cost you ten dollars. This is the price of the most basic haircut at any Russian barbershop. If you are in the market for anything beyond the most basic haircut, you should probably not be at a Russianbarber shop.

When you arrive, there will be a worker out front smoking. When you leave there will be a worker out front smoking. Inside there will be several vinyl chairs sitting amidst a wash of cheap-looking jewelry, shoe-shine supplies, and grooming products of dubious provenance. The effect is roughly that of getting your hair trimmed in a corner of your widower uncle’s attic. Old baseball memorabilia, it seems, should be somehow involved.

Business will be slow. This (along with low prices) is a key advantage of the Russian barbershop. A person rarely has to wait for long. Even when things are busy, however, there will always be one man—typically mustachioed and on the downslope of middle-age—sitting around doing nothing in particular. He seems somehow in charge, but it would be difficult to say why. Sometimes he works the cash register. More often he plays backgammon and watches soccer on TV. Soccer is always on TV. The radio, meanwhile, is tuned to an all-Russian station you never knew existed and cannot understand. It’s quite pleasant nonetheless.

On the wall above the mirror will be a faded poster featuring headshots of several orange-hued youths and the hairstyles that have been inflicted upon them. The majority of said hairstyles look to have involved heavy use of the electric clippers. Not coincidentally, the same is true of your own hairstyle, which is nice, as it keeps things moving along. There will be little conversation, due in part to the language barrier, but mostly to the fact that neither of you care very much what the other has to say. He asks if you would like him to trim your eyebrows. You say yes, because, well, why not?

Then it’s time for the back of the neck. The electric shaving cream dispenser whirs (at once antiquated and oddly miraculous), the straight-razor scrapes up and down your skin, and then a damp, warm towel is tossed over your head. “Gel?” the barber asks? You decline. He unsnaps your smock and steps back from the chair. The mustachioed man gets up from his game and walks over to the register. You pay him (cash-only, of course) and then step out onto the street feeling a little bit lighter and cleaner than you did 15 minutes earlier.

To visit a prime specimen of the Russian barbershop, head to 333 Park Avenue South.

10/01/09 4:00am

“No, really, I’m fine.” she had said. “Really. I actually drive better when I’m a little bit drunk.”

“Isn’t that right, Jonathan, honey?” Jonathan was her son. Four years old now, and asleep on her shoulder. It was this last part that was, as they say, the coup de grace.

She didn’t know why she’d said it. It really wasn’t very like her at all. And they meant well. They were all very sweet, really, even Ken, in his way, though his way whatever it was exactly most certainly involved her naked in some fashion or another, which wasn’t perhaps so sweet after all—although it wasn’t really so not-sweet either, everything else considered.

He was crap as an escort, though. Useless. Which she supposed was only to be expected after a half-dozen or so Jack-and-Cokes.

The surprise had come off fine. Melissa had had no idea; or, at any rate, she’d pretended she’d had no idea, though it wouldn’t have been like her to pretend, at least not so well. Alex had almost blown it by arriving late—they’d been turning into the subdivision when Melissa’s mother had called Greg and told him to play for time, that Alex had called to tell them he was running behind, was just then getting onto Pleasantdale up by the mall.

“Your Mom wants us to pick up some eggs,” Greg told Melissa, and he’d U-turned and gone back out to the road and the store where in addition to buying the eggs he’d stalled for a minute or two more in the wine aisle—“just a bottle for dinner”—while figuring in his head how much longer Alex would need.

“Do you know him? Is he a friend of Greg’s?” Linda had asked her while they waited. “I can’t believe he’s late. He knew what time it started, right?”

She, on the other hand, had been there for hours. “Come early,” Mrs. Brubaker had told her when she’d called with the invitation. (Mrs. Brubaker had called to invite each of them personally.) “You and Jenny can help us get ready.” Dale and Linda would be there with their kids as well, she’d said, so Jonathan would have someone to play with. It was somewhat more involvement than she had planned on, particularly given her appropriate place at the periphery of things, but there was about Mrs. Brubaker a certain “all hands on deck” ethos, something in the voice at the other end of the line that insinuated obligation. She had felt fairly certain it was expected that she would arrive in time to help out. So she had. She had sliced carrots into sticks for dipping and washed out the ice chest the beers would go into. Linda had handled the lasagnas.